“We shot about a year ago, so it was about a year before that. It was smuggled to me by a guy at Universal who said I ought to read it because it was the kind of dangerous, interesting stuff that nobody else in their right mind would make.”
What made it stand out?
“It was very complex, very intelligent, very funny, very dark. As much as anything, the ending intrigued me, plus the idea of somebody seeing their own death was very poetic and interesting. I didn't immediately leap to do this film because I was working on a couple of my own projects, and also Tale of Two Cities. For a variety of reasons, these other projects all died, and Chuck Roven, the producer of 12 Monkeys, was a very tenacious guy who wouldn't let go. He kept dragging me off to meetings with David and Janet Peoples, and just kept pestering me until I had to say yes.”
Was the initial script very different to what ended up on screen?
“I don't think so. Obviously details are different and certain things are probably simplified, but it's basically that. It's those characters doing those things, saying most of those lines. As a film develops it always takes on a life of its own, and for me it was always a matter of keeping in touch with David and Jan to see that we weren't going astray from what they intended. They seemed to like what we were doing, so on we marched.”
How involved were you with casting the film?
“Totally. That's a key part of making a film. If you get the casting right, then your work is quite easy. That's what I do.”
What made you go for Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt?
“They were two quite separate problems, because we'd reached a point on the film where I was trying to do it more cheaply. I didn't want to get involved with big stars, because they tend to raise the price of things. The studio were rather nervous about the film because they thought it was too intelligent, too demanding, too complex, all those things. They insisted at one point that we have a star in the lead role. Well, I listened to their suggestions and walked away from the film for a few weeks, because I said, 'This is crazy.'
"Then I got a call from my agent saying that Bruce was very keen to do this thing, and I'd met him before, and liked him. So Chuck Roven and I set sail for New York and had an evening with Bruce, talking through what I felt the film should be, and my fear of superstars. How I wasn't interested in Bruce Willis, superstar, but Bruce Willis, actor intrigued me a lot. We got on and we all seemed to agree on what we were talking about doing here. So I said, 'Fine, Bruce is great.' So at that point the film was in motion and happening.
"The fact that Brad was very keen to get involved was totally separate and was basically the icing on the cake. He was very determined to be in the film. I wasn't certain whether he could pull it off. It was such a crucial part and it was so different from anything he'd tried before, I was understandably nervous. But he came to London and we had dinner and I really liked him. I thought he was incredibly determined and earnest. I thought, 'Now we're playing safe by having someone like Bruce in the film, let's play dangerous by having somebody like Brad in the film.' What I like when I make movies is trying to shift people's perceptions of the world, and part of the world is superstar actors, so if you can change people's view of what they are capable of, that's as interesting as anything else.”
Like having De Niro with his head in a bag.
“Yes. You take somebody that everybody thinks. 'Oh, he's that,' and then you shift it. I'm determined to continue to concentrate on doing this, because everybody gets very lazy and wants the world neatly packaged for them, and I don't like that.”
One name I was surprised to see was Simon Jones. I thought, 'My goodness, where's his hair gone?'
“Age comes to us all.”
Is that the first time you've worked with him since Meaning of Life?
“Was Meaning of Life after Brazil? I can't remember. He's in Brazil as the arresting officer at the beginning who sets the whole thing going by arresting Mr Bottle. Simon's married to a lady named Nancy Lewis who looks after Python in America.”
The same names do seem to crop up in the cast lists of your films.
“These people won't leave me alone. They keep bothering me, begging me! If I'm going to come round for dinner, I've got to at least return the favour somehow.”
“I find it very hard to separate me from Roger and vice versa. We just work very easily together. We talk about ideas and ideas just flow. He's a brilliant cameraman, and we're good friends, so we don't spend much time arguing theory or anything. We just go, 'Let's make that moody, and that should be light and beautiful,' and off Roger goes. It's really hard to know how it works. I really honestly don't know, I don't even think about it. We just go to work in the morning and make pictures, and Roger's brilliant. We always talk it through and we always have a plan of how we're going to light something, but it's all done fairly pragmatically. Roger's very fast as well, so I'm seldom waiting for him.
"What was interesting when we did Brazil was that he was playing around using warm and cold lights in the same shot, which people weren't really doing at the time. That created a very distinctive look. It actually became very much like German expressionist painting, using colours in those ways. That worked very well. On this one, we didn't do that the same way. You just look at the scene and think, 'We'll put a light over there and another one over there,' and do that. It's not much more theoretical than that. We both just happen to see things in a different way.”
“I don't even know what that means!”
It's a 'look' that some films have, where you say, 'Oh, it's very Terry Gilliam.'
“I can only think that applies to wide-angle lenses, over-busy frames, tons of stuff in there. I suppose there's a quirkiness in my stuff; things I've taken so seriously that you can't find things to giggle at. I like the idea of making images that are so complex that people have to go and see a few times to get the full benefit.”
The last Gilliam-esque film I saw was The City of Lost Children. Have you seen that?
“Yes, I'm friends with Jeunet and Caro. I think they're great. Part of it is that we come from the same background. They come out of comic books as well. So they've got cartoonists' viewpoints when they look at things. I'm sure that's where the similarity comes from. I think the Coen brothers, in a strange way, have it as well. That's probably because they come from Minnesota, and that's where I come from as well, so it's obviously in the water there. I like pushing the limits of what you can do with lenses and how you frame shots. We went fairly crazy in 12 Monkeys with Dutch angles. Seldom is the camera actually level.
"But there's an intention behind that; it's not just because it's a silly thing to do. It's to try to disorient the audience in a sense as the characters are disoriented. Nothing is quite level, nothing is quite what it seems to be. In fact when it does go normal, to me those are the interesting shots, because suddenly, after all these strange angles, to go 'klunk!' and it's level and flat and it's reasonable. It always jumps off the screen when it happens, at least it does in my stuff.”
12 Monkeys is based on a short film by Chris Marker called La Jetée.
“A lot of people are spending a lot of time on that one. The press releases didn't even include it, because it's inspired by it, rather than 'based upon'. What it's taken is the idea of somebody being sent back in time, somebody with a dream that turns out to be their own death, and finding a woman that he falls in love with. That's it. That's not anything to be sniffed at - those are all good and wonderful ideas - but I think that what David and Jan did was write something much more rich and complex. It's about many more things than La Jetée was.”
What did Chris Marker think of 12 Monkeys?
“He's in Paris. I've seen two faxes from him and he really likes it. His approach to the whole thing was that he wasn't interested in selling the rights but he was a big fan of David's writing. So he said, 'Here's La Jetée: if it's a starting point, an inspiration for you to go off and do something, then go and do it.' But nobody went out of their way to try and make a remake of something in any way.”
Have you been pleased with the response the film's had so far?
“No, it's disgraceful. People liked it. I hoped they'd hate it. I was making it just for me. No, it's great. Everybody is very pleased with the way it's going. What's nice is that it's actually got people discussing things. They argue. I keep getting report after report of people going to dinner parties and arguing over what that meant or what it didn't mean. Do five million people die or do they live? That's part of the intention, to get people talking again.”
“I don't know. I'm a Gilliam-esque film-maker is what I am. It's kind of nice not being either one or the other.”
Do you find that your films are received differently in different parts of the world?
“They're probably liked most of all in France. I seem to be as popular as Jerry Lewis, which is terrifying. I think what it is; they're probably films about America but from an English perspective. I can't quite escape being American yet I've lived most of my life now in England. So I have this slightly skew perspective of things.”
Presumably this went quite smoothly. Did you have any worries that it might turn out like Brazil or Munchausen?
“Yes, those scars are still fairly visible. I'm very careful when I get involved in projects since those days. Both Fisher King and 12 Monkeys went exceedingly easily, and it's because I step very carefully into these little pools of piranhas. But the things I've been wanting to do seem to have required American money. Most of the other projects I've been working on seem to fall into that trap. There is a certain point in a budget where you can't get enough money from the rest of the world so you need to go eventually to Hollywood. It's quite interesting, because the last two, Hollywood came to me. And when they come to you then you can set the terms much more easily than when you go begging cap in hand.”
“No, it's just that we think we know what we're doing. And we want to make our own mistakes; we don't want to make somebody else's mistakes. That's where everybody goes wrong. Every time we get in a situation where we've done some work, however silly the work is, we're very serious about it. And if somebody starts fiddling with the work, then they're in for a fight! That's all that happens. What's interesting now is that, because of earlier fights and Brazil and all that, people are very wary around me. Those things have paid off in the long term, because people know I'm serious about what I do. The kind of people that come knocking on the door are much more intelligent, they've got more interesting projects, and they all know they've got to be serious about what they're doing. If we're going to work on something, it's got to be done for the right reasons. I don't like making films to please studio executives and marketing researchers.”
Although there is a bit of humour in 12 Monkeys, your films seem to have moved away from being actual comedies. Is this a conscious decision?
“No, I've just probably become old, bitter and twisted. It's just that these are the things that have intrigued me, that have come along at a certain point when I'm thinking about certain things, and are good expression of these ideas. Fisher King was pretty funny. All of them, no matter how humorous they are or aren't, there's a darkness in there that intrigues me. Brad's very funny in 12 Monkeys, and even Bruce has got some nice lines, but they usually come at very inappropriate and dangerous moments or disturbing moments. Of late I've been obsessed with death in one form or another, so that's why death seems to figure in the films.”
“I think it will always be an element because I think that's realistic - to have fantasy added to your life. I don't think the two things are separate, frankly. And I don't think I'll ever make naturalistic films either, because that doesn't really interest me. Naturalistic films give the impression that this is truth or reality and it's not. It's artifice as much as Ace Ventura is artifice.”
I found this quote where you said: "Oftentimes reality seems more fantastic than what is considered reality." But I can't help feeling if I was going round the world spending n million pounds making Baron Munchausen, my reality would be pretty fantastic. Do you think it's also true for the punter in the street?
“I think you make reality or fantasy what you want. It isn't about money. It's about choosing how you see the world. I was probably even more fantastically oriented when I was younger with no money, than I am now. I think I'm probably getting more realistic. It's always been the passport to a happy reasonable life, even if you've got nothing in your pocket. I thinking building the big sets of Munchausen is not reality at all; it's like a nightmare, that's what that is! All of that is very realistic. This whole idea of the director being the boy with the biggest toy and having the time of his life, it isn't really like that when I'm working on the films. I wish I could do something else because I'd never describe them as fun for me, it's always just hard work.”
“Yes, it was more fun then because there was a gang of us, but the more you take on responsibilities for all of the stuff, it just becomes harder. This is not complaining about this, it's just a fact, just the way it is. Probably I make as few films as I have because when I finish one I tend to not want to make a film for a while. The whole thing is too painful. But then unfortunately I'm able to forget all the bad bits and I foolishly sign up for another one.”
Your scripts that have been published are full of doodles. Do you still draw on your scripts?
“Oh yes. What was interesting on 12 Monkeys is I actually didn't storyboard at all, for the first time. Normally when I'm storyboarding, ideas come out of the actual act of drawing. Your hand is drawing something and it's enjoying itself. The next thing I know, I've drawn something that I wasn't intending. So it's useful in that sense. Doodling is a way of letting part of my being express itself. Then I look at these things occasionally weeks later and say, 'Well, that's a good idea!' or, 'That's absolute shit. What was I thinking?' It's interesting; I find that working on a computer with a computer graphics program it doesn't happen in the same way. My hand has been trained over a long time to draw. It requires the feeling of paper and the smell of ink to get a lot of the sensory apparatus functioning at full bore.”
Do you still consider yourself an animator?
“Nope. That's another guy. When I was an animator, I didn't even consider myself an animator. I was just desperate to be a film director. It just happened to be the job that allowed me to do something that was close to making films.”
There are two really distinctive fantasy film directors in Hollywood - Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam - and you both came out of animation. Do you think that was an important part of your career?
“I think so, because I learned a lot doing it. It was an interesting means of expression. Once you start working in animation, and you become aware of single frames and what they mean, that's a very different approach than most directors have. Most directors don't realise the power of a single frame. I did a thing in 12 Monkeys, where we wanted Bruce to react to a thing but we didn't have it. So I just took another shot of him, looking away from something, and just reversed the shot. Now he looks to the bad guy and reacts accordingly.
"But it's partly being an animator that makes me think like that: 'There it is. All I need is that kind of movement. It doesn't matter whether it goes forward or backwards because I can make the film go any way I want it to go.' I do that a lot. I cut single frames out of things sometimes - it gives little kicks to things. Also with animation you have that freedom of doing almost anything you want, so that builds up a certain arrogance, a confidence or need to express yourself in certain ways. Fellini was a cartoonist, he was never an animator, but there's been a few people have come out of cartooning as well, not just animation.”
Some filmographies connect you with a 1970 Vincent Price movie, Cry of the Banshee.
“Aha! I did the title sequence. there were a lot of Brecht-Durer apocryphal beasts and monsters flying around the place. I can't remember. It was a long time ago, and I'm not even sure if I've got a copy of it. Samuel Z Arkoff was the man that knocked on the door.”
The other thing I don't have any information on is a 1974 short called The Miracle of Flight. What was that?
“That was around the time of Python. I was animating for Marty Feldman's show, something called The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine. I was commissioned to do a half-hour or twenty-five minutes of animation, and one of them was this short film that I did which is all about man's inability to fly. It turns up occasionally at short film festivals and cartoon festivals.”
Do you still keep in contact with the other Pythons?
“Yes, even the ones that are still alive.”
“That's something we've actually jokingly talked about, but it would have to probably be a cut-out of Graham that we could operate from the back. I don't think we're as desperately in need of money as the Beatles are.”
And you could probably produce a better record than 'Free as a Bird'.
“Without much difficulty.”
Most Python films seem to be by one Python with one or two other Pythons in, but none of the team are in your last two films.
“It's purely because the last two have been in America and about Americans. There's no ulterior motive at work here.”
A lot of creative people, when asked what they're working on, don't like to give details until it's actually in production. Yet your name seems to be forever attached to different projects, most of which...
“...Don't happen! It proves the point of why you should never talk about such things.”
“Well, I have now, as of this interview! I'll shut up about what I'm really doing now, because all these other things are projects that I was involved with or talked about being involved in. What often happens, you find, is that somebody like a producer releases this 'info' before anybody has signed or agreed definitely, and then you find yourself making one more film that you're not making.”
Can I throw a few titles at you and find out the truth behind these? In 1992 you were going to do a version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
“Yep, I worked on that as scriptwriter for about six months, then I got bored with it. But I was actually working and I think I got paid $12,000, so I made big money.”
Around the same time, you and Charles McKeown were working on Don Quixote.
“Yes, that's still in the works. The script marches on, but not to anybody's satisfaction yet.”
What about Watchmen?
“Ah, well that one, Joel Silver was trying to get me to do it. Again, I worked with Charles McKeown on that. We wrote a version of the script. Then Joel wasn't able to get the money together, so that died a death. However, I was contacted by the new owner of the rights in January this year, wanting to know if I was still interested. I think it's going to be impossible to make as a film, unless you make it a three and a half hour film, which most people aren't going to want.”
I bring this up because I know somebody at BBC Radio who is trying to get a radio series of Watchmen going.
“That's interesting. I actually think Watchmen would be great as a mini-series on television. Five or six hours, and you do it like the book so each character's got his own chapter.”
You haven't done any television for years.
“Not since Python. I'm not interested in it. I like the big screen.”
I was intrigued by your being a fan of radio because your stuff is very, very visual.
“But my theory is that radio is a great training ground for visualists, because you're only given aural information, so everything else you've got to invent. You've got to put costumes on them, you've got to put faces on them, you've got to do the shots. I'm sure that it was a great stretcher of imagination muscles when I was a kid. If you get the sound right and the voices right, it just conjures up whole worlds. Radio isn't alive and well the way it used to be, but at least in England it's still going.”
Let me throw a few more projects at you. The Minotaur; were you working on that with Michael Palin?
“At one point, yes, but not really seriously, but that's another project that's hung around, waiting for a decent script to be written of it. What I do with these things is I get excited about them, and I've worked it out in my head, and I get bored.”
“Well, certain stories, I become too familiar with them, and then I have to walk away from them. Quixote was one of those, and Minotaur's a bit like that too. I looked at it again the other day and thought, 'Hmm, this is a good story.' So maybe one ought to get to work on it.”
Were any of your completed films sitting around like this for a long while before being made?
“Brazil was hanging about for a few years, and then finally came together. I had actually been working on Brazil before Time Bandits, but I couldn't quite get it all working together. So I thought, 'What I'll do, rather than writing this difficult film, I'll do one that all the family can come to see' And that was Time Bandits.”
Time Bandits, Brazil and Munchausen are sometimes banded together as a trilogy. In what sense are they a trilogy?
“Well ... in the sense that I lied about that! I was referring to Munchausen as 'the fourth part of the trilogy'. But in the sense that they are all in some ways autobiographical: you've got a boy, you've got a young man, and you've got an old man. All dreamers of one sort or another; all getting swept up in dangerous adventures as a result of their imagination.”
“I heard this too. I've only heard about this in interviews, never in reality. I don't know where this came from, but obviously somebody wrote it in a paper or a magazine somewhere and then it's been repeated, but nobody's ever approached me about this.”
Another one that may just be wishful thinking: were you ever approached about the Hitch-Hiker's Guide movie?
“I know Douglas and this sort of comes and goes occasionally, but it's never gotten anything more than saying, 'It's an interesting idea, but...' We've never worked out a script or anything.”
The latest rumour is Time Bandits 2.
“There's a company that bought out Handmade Films and all of its properties, and they were talking to us about doing one. Charles McKeown and I have an idea what to do, but we're waiting to hear more from them. We haven't heard anything for a few months. I don't know what's happening. It's one I wouldn't direct. I'd work with Charles on the script and godfather it basically.”
Are you looking at moving towards more non-directorial projects?
“No, it's just that I don't want to do that one. There are others that I want to do.”
Are there any other projects?
“You missed Hunchback of Notre Dame which I turned down last week. Then there was Tale of Two Cities. That was the one I was working on just before 12 Monkeys.”
That's not a particularly fantastical one.
“No, I was moving into new territory. But it did have the hero dying at the end! That one I worked on for quite a long time. It was going to be starring Mel Gibson, and at the very last moment he decided he wanted to direct again, and he directed Braveheart. So we were then floundering, trying to find a replacement. We needed a big star and the studio started pissing around, and I said, 'Bye!'“
All the things you've done or been attached to tend to be very big projects. Do you ever want to go back to doing some very little thing on a low budget with a few actors and two sets?
“After Munchausen, my joke was that I wanted to do a film about a schizophrenic but only half his personality. That was my little film. Well, Fisher King was my little film. That was only four people.”
But even that had a dance sequence in Grand Central Station.
“Yes, I know. This is my nature; I can't really do little films. This thing sort of springs forth and demands attention. But I like big films. I think they're things I'm reasonably skilled at dealing with. I have both the eye and the mind to deal with them, so I'll play it. My attitude is I'll play it as long as somebody gives me the money to play it, and when that dries up we can think about little films. But at the moment I can get something off the ground of a reasonable scale.”
“I probably would have done it. Effects have always been there. It's always been possible to do anything you wanted to do. It's easier to do certain kinds of things now. What's impossible to do now is to make Cleopatra or Fall of the Roman Empire, when you've got 10,000 extras all doing things. You can lay out big lengths of Scottish armies, like in Braveheart, but you can't really do those big scenes any more because nobody can afford those numbers of real people. It just changes.”
Do you think you'd have been happier doing that?
“There was always a side of me that wanted to make an epic. because I grew up liking epics. I thought they were just great; to see thousands of people just pouring over the hillside. I suppose that came from living in a small, rural community, but now living in a city I suppose I'm less interested in large numbers of people.”
[This final section was a regular part of SFX interviews, in which interviewees were asked to sum up each of their various works. It was called 'Gilliam on Gilliam'. - MJS]
“I ought to preface all this. I don't watch my films, so this is from memory.”
I had to cheat a bit because you've done seven films and we needed eight, so to lay it out neatly I've had to include the Python TV series.
“So you can't squeeze in The Crimson Permanent Insurance? That's my film.”
That's nine, that's even better. But let's start with Python.
“It was great because there were no rules. We were just out to make each other laugh, and that's a rare thing, where there's nobody breathing down your neck, saying, 'You're offending these people,' or, 'We need a bigger audience,' or, 'We're not getting our market share.' There was none of that. It was just the freedom of being six people, working rather hard, doing what we thought was funny and going for it. That was great. For me, it was non-stop work, seven days a week, trying to produce the animations. There'd usually be one or two all-nighters a week, so I'd usually be brain-damaged. The freedom was also based on the fact that we had to produce so much stuff. It takes the onus off you; you don't have to be good all the time, you just have to be able to fill up the time slot.”
other Terry co-directed Holy Grail.
“That was interesting again because it was two keen, desperate people trying to be film directors, having neither of us directed a feature-length film before, and learning on the job. We did it in less than five weeks for very little money. It was done basically because we were so naive; we didn't know we couldn't do it. What was interesting was how, as we worked on it, it became clear that Terry and I didn't share exactly the same voice all the time. So I tended to step back. I also didn't really like trying to direct all the others, because I was just this monosyllabic animator, and they couldn't understand why I needed them to stand in holes, so their heads didn't stick over the matte line. I got tired of that, and said, 'They wrote the stuff, they can do it.' But it was still pretty extraordinary that we pulled it off in as little time with as little money as had.”
Have you ever met the SF writer Iain Banks?
“No, I read his stuff though. I've never met Iain M Banks either.”
When he was 16 he was an extra in Holy Grail.
“All the students from Stirling and elsewhere were there. It was wonderful.”
“That was a sort of silly arrogance on my part; there were three of us from Python involved in it, and it was medieval, and it was comic, and to think that it wouldn't be compared to Grail was very silly and naive. And it was, and found not to be 'as funny' but it wasn't intending to be 'as funny'. But I think what I'd discovered by Jabberwocky was how nice it was not to work in the group and to realise that actors would do what the director said. This was an extraordinary leap forward, unlike Holy Grail, where the actors did what they chose. The great thing was working with Max Wall and John Le Mesurier. We gathered together some great comics - Warren Mitchell, Harry H Corbett - a pretty good collection of British comics.”
The next one was Time Bandits.
“The great thing about Time Bandits wasn't the making of it but was the fact that it was a huge success in America. It was made 15 years ago or more; it made almost $50 million in America, which basically opened the door to all these other things like Brazil. Because that kind of success breeds opportunities to take advantage of studios, and I did. I remember sitting down and saying, 'I'll write a film for everybody, for all the family.' The thing was the knight coming out of the wardrobe.
"The interesting thing about Time Bandits was again a kind of pragmatic approach. I wanted the camera to be at a kid's point of view the whole time. I wanted to be down with the kid. I didn't think I could find a kid that would sustain the interest of the audience all the way through it. So what do you do? You surround the kid with a gang who are all the same height as he is. That's how the dwarf Time Bandits developed. I remember one weekend just madly scribbling these things down and worked out a story effectively. then went down and grabbed Mike and off we went. It was very easy. That was again a time when we wanted to do something and it just seemed to happen very quickly.”
“No, that was just our way of trying to describe who we wanted, with no thought that Connery would do it. It was Dennis O'Brien who was running Handmade Films then who was a very literal kind of character. So there it said 'Sean Connery' in the script, so he met Sean Connery and he asked him. Luckily Sean's career was in the doldrums then, so he signed up. But it was the furthest thing from my mind that we'd get somebody like Connery to be in it.”
Brazil is certainly your most critically acclaimed film.
“That's the most cathartic film as well. It was just kidding around with stuff, clearing the shit out of my system. The original script and storyboards were twice as elaborate as what we finally did. There were a lot more dream sequences. It's the precursor of things like Munchausen where I can convince myself and other people that we can do things like this for tuppence, and of course we never can. So it's that constant battle. It was great fun doing Brazil because we didn't get lost in it, not sure exactly what you were doing and what effect it was going to have. But we knew it was going to be shocking people. It was kind of like cinematic rape that we were offering to the public. People were really so split over that film. So many people just hated it, and then others just thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.”
“Yes. They see this visual cacophony pouring down on them, attacking them all the time. It's a very attacking film; it's not a restful film. A lot of people just didn't get it. It's very interesting how they revise their views as time goes on. I remember the nicest thing was going to Paris the first time, because they were the first people who really saw it and the first interviews I gave about it. Journalists came in and said was I interested in poetry because Brazil's a totally poetic film. To be given those kind of descriptions of your work is great: 'I'm an artist at last!'“
A Jean Cocteau influence. How do you think your career might have developed if you hadn't won the battle to get it released with the proper ending?
“I have no idea. I don't know if it would make any difference, I'd still plough on and make films. But at least Brazil had gone out to the rest of the world as we intended, and the American battle was just because they were fucking around with my film. I said, 'Put your name on it, and I'll go out and promote the film, but as long as my name is on it, it goes out the way I made it.' Taking the studio on in that way, and actually winning, it's kept me in good stead. At the time, we didn't think we were going to win, we were just going to go down screaming and fighting and going to take as many people with us as possible - publicly!
"It was actually a fairly depressing time, to say the least, but I remember the LA critics voted it Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Direction, and that was announced on the night of the premiere of Out of Africa, which was Universal's big film that year. For that film to win nothing from the LA critics and for us to win all the top awards was just extraordinary. It was well worth doing. I don't know if I've got enough energy to do it again, but it was one of those battles I'm glad I did.”
“That was an idea I had. I remember bringing it up when we were talking about the film, and the others thought I was going to do it as an animated feature and I said, 'No, I want to do it as live action.' It was meant to be in the middle of the film, not in front of the film. I finished it, and I had my own crew and my own studio making this little thing that kept growing bigger and bigger and bigger. And when we put it in the middle of the film, the whole film just ground to a halt. It was such a different kind of pace, and everything about it was different. It was a different kind of world. I was under pressure from the others to cut it shorter and shorter and shorter.
"I kept trimming it down and finally reached a point where I thought, 'This is ridiculous. If it's any shorter it's not worth having it, period. Let's just pull it out of the film. We'll have it as a supporting short, and then it'll reappear in the middle of the film, which nobody has ever had done before, where the short attacks the feature film.' It was a chance to take basically a cartoon idea and render it in live action, because I've always wanted to do that. And again it was getting a chance for people who don't normally get this kind of work: for 80-year-old men to be buccaneers; as were dwarves in Time Bandits getting a chance to be adventure heroes.”
“The reality of Munchausen is that it wasn't expensive. It only cost about $40 million. But we only had 23 and a half to make it! So the problem wasn't profligate spending, it was a silly budget that the producer convinced everybody we could do it for. I had storyboarded the whole thing; the numbers of extras, cast, everything was there on paper if somebody wanted to seriously budget the film. But he went through four accountants, because each accountant he would bring on would say, 'It's going to cost 60 million.' So he was fired. Another would come in and say, 'It's gone down to 50 million,' - he was fired. Eventually he got one that said, 'It'll cost what you got, 23 and a half' - so he stayed on. He was fired later.
"I had blithely decided that I was going to believe the lies about how cheaply we could do it in Rome because I wanted to work in Rome, and so marched in there. The thing was that it was one thing for me to believe the lies, but for the completion guarantor, the insurance company and everybody else to believe them was what was really silly. These guys, their function is to understand budgets and know what you can get for your money. But it was truly a nightmare. Every day it just got worse because the production was a complete disaster and nothing was ready. Everything was constantly being delayed. With a twenty-week shoot, in the sixth week, all the money was gone. But nevertheless, it was the kind of adventure that I suppose, if you're going to try the complete spectrum of film experiences, everybody should have one of these.”
“Fisher King was the work of a broken man basically.”
It was very much a departure for you.
“After Munchausen I was incredibly depressed, and this script arrived and I thought it was wonderful. it was simple, it was just four people, and it was a chance to prove to critics that I was interested in more than just the visuals of the film. Because I've always been interested in the acting and the characters, but people are so distracted by the look of my films, they don't seem to notice there's really good acting going on in front of the cameras. So this in many ways was a chance to get rid of the big visual pyrotechnics and just do something much simpler. The fact is it still looks pretty extraordinary. It was really nice just to work with actors as opposed to special effects technicians. Actors are really good fun. We'd rehearse for a couple of weeks and we really enjoyed.”
How would you sum up 12 Monkeys?
“It was actually closer in many ways to making Brazil, because I didn't know what I was doing half the time. It was one of those stories that was like the film itself. The director was the main character, wandering around, trying to make sense of a senseless world. Because we were getting lost in what scene we were doing, and where in the script that scene went, it was a very unnerving kind of experience. I actually didn't enjoy the work that much because we were all just exhausting ourselves trying to do something that was, from an actor's point of view, very different from what they've normally done. So most of my efforts were being concentrated on dealing with the actors. Taking actors and trying to make them do things that they don't normally do.”
“Yes, in fact in the next room, the guys who did the first one are here with the second one.”
What's that like as a medium to work in?
“It's interesting because it's non-linear. That's nice, because a lot of my stuff is non-linear, especially the cartoons were. So it's fun to try and move and juggle things in different ways. On the other hand, you're usually in the hands of so many other people when you're doing it, because I still don't understand how the actual machinery works, just like I don't understand exactly how the machinery of a computer works, which I find very frustrating. For once I was in the hands of engineers and computer types who work out the problems in their own way. I've always in the past made sure I understood how the tools work before I did something. I find this a little more unnerving because I don't know how the tools really work."